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Sacramento Kings 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Sacramento Kings’ 2016-17 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Sacramento Kings have under-performed for years, winning just 33 games last season despite higher expectations internally.  Dating back to last offseason, the Kings were in turmoil with former coach George Karl and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins at odds.

The organization tried to push through, hoping fences would be mended along the way, but the team stumbled on the floor and eventually Karl was the casualty.  The team has since hired head coach Dave Joerger, who was with the Memphis Grizzlies until this summer.

Joerger is tasked with getting Cousins to engage fully as the Kings’ best player, building a winner with a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2006.  The team has a talented roster – at least offensively – but it remains to be seen if Joerger can get his squad to produce on both sides of the court.

Basketball Insiders previews the Sacramento Kings’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

We have spent the better part of the past few years laughing at the instability of the Kings, so many of the moves they made this past summer have gone unnoticed. I mean, their rotation is likely to consist of a few tough veterans in Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes and Kosta Koufos, some youngsters in Malachi Richardson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere and some players whom we already know can play in DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and the newly acquired Ty Lawson. The Kings aren’t going to supplant either the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Clippers in the division, but, at least on paper, they appear to be a better team this season.

Traditionally, players who bring gold medals home enjoy productive seasons. We’ll see in short order whether Cousins bucks the trend. Either way, I don’t think the Kings are making the playoffs this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they improved upon last season’s 33 wins.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

Generally speaking, the Kings are no less confusing now than they were a year ago, which means we’re probably in for one more year of the disgruntled version of DeMarcus Cousins. It’s a shame, too, because the happy version of Cousins was such a joy to watch this past summer as a member of Team USA. He’ll be trading in the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson, two free agent signings that capped off a pretty baffling offseason for the Kings. Getting Skal Labissiere as late as they did in the draft was a steal, except he’ll never see the floor on a team collecting centers like Pokemon. They’ve got a patchwork roster with plenty of talent, but nobody has any idea how it’s all going to come together. New head coach Dave Joerger should help put the pieces together, but even a good chef can only do so much with odd ingredients.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

It seems like forever since the Kings were annually competing for a trip to the NBA Finals in the early 2000s. But over the past decade, the team has had a rather tumultuous ride. Coaching changes, failed rebuilding projects, relocation threats and constant front-office shuffling led to the Kings seemingly hitting rock bottom on more than a few occasions. The 2016-17 team figures to have its own set of drama to conquer with point guard Darren Collison’s offseason incident looming and the future of All-Star DeMarcus Cousins with the organization a daily discussion. Still, there is enough talent here to make some improvement, but don’t expect a huge leap in the standings.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

In some ways, I’m still processing the Kings’ offseason. I didn’t love any of their moves and I didn’t necessarily hate any of them either. A big part of this is the unstable front office situation, which has led to multiple coach hires and fires over the last few seasons and the lack of direction. Is this team trying to win now, or is it more concerned about acquiring young talent for the future? The Kings are bringing in several young players this season, including Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Malachi Richardson and Isaiah Cousins. But they also brought in veteran players like Matt Barnes, Arron Afflalo, Garrett Temple, Ty Lawson and Anthony Tolliver. Perhaps trying to become as competitive as possible now is geared toward keeping DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento long-term, but this group of players isn’t likely to make much noise in the Western Conference. Being split between competing now to appease a star player and bringing in young talent to prepare for his possible departure is probably not a recipe for major success, so I’m just not a huge fan of Sacramento’s offseason. Having said all of that, I am a fan of the Dave Joerger hire and am cautiously optimistic that he can establish an identity for this team. If things go well, this team could potentially compete for the third seed in the Pacific Division (but that doesn’t seem likely).

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Garrett Temple talked to Basketball Insiders in July about Sacramento’s offseason moves and explained that the Kings entered the summer badly wanting to change the culture around the organization. That’s why they signed veterans like Temple, Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes, Anthony Tolliver and Ty Lawson and hired head coach Dave Joerger (who had a successful stint with the Memphis Grizzlies). I don’t think Sacramento will make the playoffs this year, but I do expect the team to beat last year’s 33 wins. Joerger and the incoming veterans should do well alongside the team’s returning players to help set the foundation for the future. There are still question marks surrounding the team though, especially when it comes to Rudy Gay’s future with the Kings and whether DeMarcus Cousins is happy with the franchise’s direction.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins is arguably the best scoring center in the NBA.  Last season, he led the Kings with 26.9 points per game.  He is powerful in the post and near the basket, but he also has range that extends all the way out to the three-point line – taking 210 attempts last year and converting 33.3 percent.  Cousins isn’t necessarily the most efficient scorer (shooting 45.1 percent from the field), but he’s a high-volume powerhouse who is very tough for opposing big men to guard.

Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

Now a sophomore, Cauley-Stein has tremendous potential as an NBA defender.  A true seven-footer, Cauley-Stein is mobile and athletic and may get the opportunity to start alongside Cousins.  Whether Cauley-Stein does so at center or power forward isn’t necessarily significant.  He’d likely draw the assignment on the opponent’s strongest offensive player night after night.  Cauley-Stein is agile and long enough to bother smaller, quicker players on the perimeter.  The Kings have not been a strong defensive club in recent years, but Cauley-Stein could be an important part of a culture change.

Top Playmaker: Darren Collison

Last season, Collison came off the bench behind one of the NBA’s top assist men in Rajon Rondo.  With Rondo off to the Chicago Bulls, Collison projects to be a high-minute starter this season for the Kings.  Two years ago, Collison started 45 games in Sacramento, averaging 5.6 assists per game.  While he’s not as dynamic a playmaker as Rondo, Collison will have the ball in his hands a lot this season and will look to set up his teammates.  The Kings have invited Ty Lawson to camp.  Should he make the team, Lawson is more of a true point guard than Collison.  Just two seasons ago (2014-15), Lawson averaged 9.6 assists a game for the Denver Nuggets.  Outside of Lawson, it’s unclear if any other players on the roster can play the point behind Collison.

Top Clutch Player: Rudy Gay, perhaps?

The Kings went into last season with higher expectations, but really struggled to close out games.  As a team, Sacramento wasn’t especially clutch.  Defensively, they gave up 109.1 points a game.  They played at a fast pace (scoring 106.6 points nightly), but down the stretch, they rarely seemed to get important stops.  Whatever clutch offense they got seemed overshadowed by their struggles on the other end.  Rudy Gay was often the primary option in the final minutes of games and while he had some success, the team rarely did.  The Kings really need Cousins to emerge as that guy this season, and they need to get the corresponding stops to get the wins.

The Unheralded Player: Omri Casspi

A number of players could fit this bill, from newcomers Arron Afflalo and Anthony Tolliver to under-utilized players like Kosta Koufos and Ben McLemore.  However, Casspi has emerged as an ideal small-ball stretch four, a mobile 6’9 forward who shoots the three.  Last year, Casspi hit 40.9 percent of his shots from behind the arc.  His effective field goal percentage was 57.1.

Top New Addition: Arron Afflalo

Afflalo is a solid two-way guard, who can also play some small forward.  The Kings need to play a more mature level of basketball to get wins, and Afflalo fits that well as an experienced veteran. He should be a great locker room presence for the Kings, just as he was during his successful stint with the Orlando Magic.  Last season, Afflalo shot 38.2 percent from behind the arc with the New York Knicks.  He’s also a capable scorer from the post.

– Eric Pincus

WHO WE LIKE

1. DeMarcus Cousins

From a pure talent standpoint, Cousins is among the most talented players in the league – big or small.  He played an important part in Team USA earning a gold medal in Rio this summer.  If he can improve as a leader and contain his emotions on the court, Cousins may climb into the “Most Valuable Player” discussion. However, to date, he hasn’t been able to take the Kings to the playoffs.  Cousins isn’t far from a “Who We Don’t Like” list, to be honest.  His career arc is still very much up in the air.

2. Dave Joerger

Coach Joerger was successful in Memphis when the Grizzlies were healthy.  The team was among the best in the league defensively, advancing to the second round in 2015 before falling to the Golden State Warriors in six games.  Sacramento is desperate for leadership, and Joerger has the opportunity to help re-brand the Kings.  His first and primary job will be reaching Cousins.

3. Willie Cauley-Stein

Cauley-Stein can’t make Sacramento a defensive-minded team by himself, but he represents the path the Kings need to walk if they want to truly become a force in the Western Conference. Dave Joerger will try to maximize Cauley-Stein’s potential and get the team’s other significant contributors to step up on the defensive end alongside the second-year big man.

4. Omri Casspi

Casspi is scrappy, plays hard and can hit the three.  As is the case with Cauley-Stein, the team is not going to change its culture because of a couple of role players.  It has to start from the top – and that’s Cousins.

– Eric Pincus

SALARY CAP 101

The Kings dropped under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple and Matt Barnes.  The team is over the cap, but still has it’s $2.9 million Room Exception.  The team has 14 guaranteed players, with one spot open for Ty Lawson, Lamar Patterson and Isaiah Cousins to fight over.  Lawson’s $1.3 million is a non-guaranteed summer contract, meaning he doesn’t even have salary protection if injured.

Next summer, Sacramento could have significant spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap.  The second years on Afflalo and Tolliver’s contracts (a combined $20.5 million) are guaranteed for just $1.5 million and $2 million, respectively.   Rudy Gay ($12.3 million) and Barnes ($6.4 million) also have player options.  Without all four, the Kings could reach $55 million under the cap – among the most in the league.  That number assumes Sacramento picks up Willie Cauley-Stein’s rookie-scale option before November.  The team also has until the end of October to give Ben McLemore an extension, otherwise he’ll be a restricted free agent if the Kings extend a qualifying offer in July.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Cousins is a match-up nightmare for most teams.  Gay is a high-volume scoring forward.  Veterans like Barnes, Collison, Tolliver, Koufos, Casspi and Afflalo should help the Kings play a more mature brand of basketball.  Lawson is a wildcard; if he makes the squad, he could end up being the starting point guard or a solid reserve behind Collison.  Cauley-Stein isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he’s an important defensive component on a team that has struggled on that front.  The new start under Joerger, with the team moving to the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, should help the team put their unimpressive past behind them.  The Kings have an opportunity to make noise in the Western Conference, but they’re going to need to finally deliver on the court after years of underwhelming play.

– Eric Pincus

WEAKNESSES

Sacramento has struggled for leadership.  In previous season, opponents just needed to stay close in games because they knew the Kings would eventually beat themselves.  The biggest issue has been on the defensive side of the ball, but Sacramento can be disjointed offensively as well.  Cousins’ talent is unquestionable, but he still has to prove he can be the best player on a good NBA team.  The team’s roster is not particularly well balanced, loaded with forwards and centers but weak at guard.  McLemore has yet to show he’s a consistent impact player.  Collison is a good, but not necessarily a great point guard.  The team needs Afflalo and possibly Lawson to make an impact in the backcourt.

– Eric Pincus

THE BURNING QUESTION

How long will the Kings’ marriage with Cousins last?

Cousins is under contract through the 2017-18 season.  As things are, given his bumpy history with the club, the odds are reasonably high that the All-Star will leave as a free agent in July of 2018.  If Joerger can help turn the team into a winner, the narrative could change significantly.  If not, the Kings need to at least explore moving Cousins lest they lose him for nothing.  Typically, the closer a star player gets to the end of his contract, the harder he can be to move for value.  Teams are often reluctant to give up a lot for a player who can walk away from them after one rental season.  This upcoming February may be the best time to move Cousins, if the Kings prove to be mediocre once again.  The team has not looked to move Cousins this offseason, preferring to see what happens with Joerger and the team’s new players.  The franchise clearly hopes for enough on-court success to engage Cousins for the long-term, but that’s easier said than done.

– Eric Pincus

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.

Ben Nadeau

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If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.

After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.

When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.

But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.

“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”

Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.

Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.

As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.

“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”

Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.

Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.

“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”

The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.

Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.

Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.

Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.

But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.

“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”

Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.

“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”

Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.

LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.

“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”

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NBA

The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived

It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.

When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.

Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.

Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.

But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.

This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.

With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.

Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.

On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.

Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.

However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.

Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.

Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.

That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.

If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.

This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.

Better late than never.

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